[I] may be crazy but I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reason.

30 March 2010


Cast of Characters for The Movie Lovers
Frank Stovall - Jose’s partner.
Sonia Sequeira - Jose’s mom.
Jose’s Care Team: Corey Baker, Caterino, Lupin, Kay, and others.

Vermilion, part 2

As far as Lupin was concerned, Jose Sequeira was something of a snob. As far as Jose was concerned, Lupin’s pronunciation of Spanish was so misshapen that he could not abide listening to him speak it. Who knows what others might feel or say about my own love of sound and meaning. I know my husband will tell you I seem constitutionally incapable of letting a word slip by mispronounced, in English or any language. But I will tell you that as a child I suffered from a tongue-knotting shyness within myself and a consistent mangling of both my first and last names by others. It marked me. So, naturally, when I began working with Jose, I asked him to pronounce his name. My eyes read "sequeera," but when Jose said it, my ears heard "cicada," like the bug. Jose didn’t know what a cicada was but he approved the sound my tongue made, and when he did, I experienced that particular happiness that comes with calling something by its true and rightful name. It is a gift to know a person, place, or thing by its true name, and it is a pleasure to be known and called by your own. Names, like language, are many things; markers for culture, status, familiarity; opportunities for communication and affection; signs that announce age, class, heritage. A true name and a given name can be, but are not necessarily, the same. When they are, they are so only after the one named has become known, unknown, and then known again to his intimates; only after he and another have stared heart into heart.

Not long after Jose and I became friends, I attended a reunion of my father's family, people I'd not seen since I was small child, and I noticed that my cousin Jose's name was properly pronounced by family members as "Hoseh," with an s sound, not "Hozay" with a z; that the last syllable of his name was not the "ay" American tongues make it out to be, but the "eh" of red. I returned home and began calling Jose Hoseh. Jose said nothing. Our circle of friends, including Frank who speaks fluent Spanish but says "Hozay," said nothing. My Hoseh was identical to the sound Jose’s mother and sister made when they spoke his name, but no one remarked on my pronunciation, not even Frank; and though I carried on awhile for the principle of it, the feel of Hoseh was awkward in my mouth and so I reverted to the Americanized version. I never asked Jose what he thought or what he preferred, and I want to tell you that I don’t know why, but I think I do. What drove me to say Hoseh was the same need which also drove me to say, whenever Jose asked if I knew of so-and-so and then mentioned an author or artist I thought I should know, “Yeah, that name rings a bell,” even when I had no earthly idea. Jose, for his part, said nothing.

When Jose lay close to death in the hospital, years after he'd sat shivering and wishing for death on my living room couch, I read to him from Renaldo Arenas' autobiography, Before Night Falls. It has many words and phrases in Spanish and, while I do not speak Spanish, I could not imagine mangling -- anglicizing -- these words written in Jose's native tongue, so I resurrected my best European vowel sounds and made an effort to say Spanish words in something approximating Spanish. Jose said nothing. During the first days and weeks after we took Jose home to his apartment and I struggled to communicate with his Nicaraguan parents who spoke little English, I often fell back on my college French or something resembling childhood Italian, something vaguely recalled from growing up in my Grandma Dina's household, hoping that Sonia would supply the proper Spanish pronunciation. For example, when Sonia called me to dinner one evening, and I said, "Moment," and she obligingly replied, "Momentito." But Jose said nothing. One evening I asked Jose to teach me how to compliment his mother’s cooking and we got hung up on my pronunciation of delicious -- delicioso in Spanish. Jose made me repeat and repeat and repeat -- delicioso, delicioso -- but I apparently had no ear for it. Although he said nothing, I could see Jose was exasperated when he finally -- finally -- approved my new sentence. It wasn't until my first Spanish class, after Jose's death, that I understood the problem. My tongue had stubbornly formed the word just like Anna Maria Albergetti (remember her Good Seasons salad dressing commercials?) with the first s coming out with a t stopped in front of it: delitsioso, the sound Italian, like my blood.

Jose’s death approached slowly, over a period of months, and so we could have but we never did speak of death. Afterward, I imagined standing next to Frank and watching the approach of the next death in my life, his, and I decided that if he and I could just talk about what was to come, the experience would be easier to accept. But to talk of death at such a time is like pausing in front of a speeding car, watching its approach from half a block away, looking at your partner in crime, and the two of you rationally considering the appropriate action to avoid destruction. While that’s more like the movies than real life, I still thought I could do it, at least until I found myself in front of that car.

I’m at home, parked at the corner, head in my arms on the steering wheel, crying after a long day spent in the hospital at Jose’s side. When I finish, I step out into the warm night air and onto the swath of grass between the curb and sidewalk. I hear the squeal of tires. I turn. I see a pair of headlights swing wide, nearly missing the left-hand turn. They swipe through an extra-wide driveway half a block away as I stand watching, waiting for the driver to overcompensate a second time and speed past me like the idiot he clearly is; waiting to see the headlights become a pair of taillights receding in the dark; but the headlights careen back across the street and thump up onto the curb between a telephone pole and my detached garage; they swerve, squeal, accelerate. Down the sidewalk. Toward me.

Suddenly I'm on all fours, slick-bottomed sandals, grass slope, scrambling toward the house and safety the way I once ran in dreams as a teenager, scrambling like an animal. In dreams I could never outrun the beast at my heels; but tonight that beast, a silver pick-up, wheels sharply, shoots the space between my car and the one parked behind it, and high-tails it down the road into the dark from whence it came. I run into the street screaming, as if it could help, "Who the hell do you think you are?"

That’s what it’s like to watch death. You stand in front of it, blinded by surprise and the bright light of survival, too stunned to realize you’re no match. And then you run, like the prey that you are.

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